Working parents are overwhelmed by the competing demands of work and family. Most have given up even making it onto their miles-long to-do list until they’re empty nesters.

As a working mom, I struggled daily to find the time and energy to meet all my responsibilities. I had a big ah-ha moment, though, a few years ago. I had so many big rocks and sand in my daily responsibilities that there was no room for pebbles — those tasks that would move my goals and dreams forward. Let me explain …

No Room for Pebbles

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about a professor, a jar, and a bunch of rocks that illustrates a failproof method for managing productivity. It also demonstrates the impact of overwork on workflow (the pace and quantity of work).

Here are the Cliff Notes. Imagine …

  • A Jar = waking hours (daily or weekly)
  • Rocks = big commitments (key responsibilities and relationships, important projects, critical meetings, etc.)
  • Pebbles = growth-based actions (planning, writing, building, etc.)
  • Sand = routine tasks (email, calls, daily chores, errands, etc.)

The only way to fit the big rocks, pebbles, AND sand into the jar is to start with the rocks. Then the pebbles and sand can fill in the nooks and crannies around the rocks.

The problem is that many of us start with the sand and add the rocks next. (Ever start your day checking email first? Sand. All sand.) When we try to add the pebbles, there’s no room. This explains why we often feel we accomplished little of what we intended. Or why we don’t feel like we made significant progress towards our goals (the pebbles in the jar).

The key is to put the sand in last (which likely means letting go of some tasks that don’t move the needle towards progress). Definitely a secret I wished I’d known as a working mom of three kids! I prioritized too much sand and paid haphazard attention to the pebbles.

Which jar best describes your current workflow?

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Two Kinds of Overwork

Workflow is one of the significant factors impacting your sense of work-life balance. As a high achiever, you expect periodic/seasonal changes in your workflow — like the middle jar above — and you meet the moment to unequivocally demonstrate your talents and commitment. When you’re fully invested in the results of your work, episodic overwork is considered an acceptable part of the job. If it’s offset by more reasonably paced work seasons and recovery time, you can maintain a healthy relationship with your workflow. 100%!

But what about chronic overwork? Not only do you have too much work, but you face challenges making room in your daily and weekly schedule for your most important work (the big rocks). This kind of overwork causes unrelenting stress and burnout … and is unsustainable.

24 Ways to Manage Workflow

What can you do to manage peak periods of work — aka episodic overwork (the middle jar above)? Looking at the timeline of before, during, and after the peak period, here are 24 options.

Before: Prepare at Work and Home

  1. Define what successful performance looks like.
  2. Prioritize and plan (including for the unexpected).
  3. Communicate work demands and family responsibilities to manage expectations.
  4. Identify and eliminate energy drains.
  5. Find win-win solutions to competing demands.
  6. Negotiate competing deadlines.
  7. Set boundaries.
  8. Ask for help and build in extra support (including paying for extra services).
  9. Address performance issues ahead of time for a well-functioning team.
  10. Schedule recovery time.

During: Don’t Over Do It

  1. Don’t overcommit and spread yourself too thin.
  2. Take breaks to renew physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy.
  3. Work on the most challenging tasks when your energy is highest.
  4. Communicate timely feedback and appreciation.
  5. Limit being connected to technology 24/7.
  6. Speak up when a deadline doesn’t feel possible.
  7. Make time for fun at work and home.

After: Debrief, Assess & Improve

  1. Welcome feedback to enhance mutual understanding of what went well and what didn’t.
  2. Determine if this was the right work in the right amount of time.
  3. Document what worked well, what didn’t, and suggested improvements for the future.
  4. Consider how to prevent overpromising for the next peak period.
  5. Consider systems you can develop during slower periods to improve efficiency.
  6. Identify training and resources needed to prepare for the next peak period.
  7. Invest in teams that interdependently support each other’s work and life based on fairness and trust.

Wrapping It Up

If you’d like to read about a time of episodic overwork I experienced and how I handled it, check out my blog post How to Recover without Guilt After a Sprint at Work.

If you feel your overwork is chronic (the third jar in the image above) instead of episodic you can try work-life rebalance skills such as managing energy, not time, setting boundaries, delegating, and others. After a concerted effort, finding a different position may be the solution for a better work-life fit.

You shouldn’t have to sacrifice wellbeing because the pace and quantity of your work consistently overflow into evenings, weekends, and vacations. There’s a better way and I’m here to help you find it!

Need Support Rebalancing Work + Life?

If you:

  • Might be facing burnout from doing ALL. THE. THINGS.
  • Want to manage a hybrid team post-pandemic but don’t have the time to figure out how
  • Are determined to own your career (instead of if owning you)

I’m your girl! Here’s how to use me as a sounding board:

  • Email me to share your biggest work-life challenge.
  • Get support to rebalance work + life regardless of your starting point.
  • Feel more in control and empowered to work and parent on your terms.
  • Schedule a free 20-minute Zoom call with me.
  • Meet with me via Zoom.
  • Get results so you work and parent without sacrificing wellbeing.
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About the Author

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I coach managers to redefine how to work, parent, and achieve financial freedom without sacrificing wellbeing. Motherhood, marriage, chronic illness, divorce, remarriage, and caring for aging loved ones contribute significantly to my story. Together, we can help you reach your fullest potential — on your terms.
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